Water/Ways Amplifies Community Solutions in Lanesboro
In many ways, Lanesboro is a town defined by the river that runs through it. The town’s past, present, and future are inextricably intertwined with the winding Root River. Founded by the Lanesboro Townsite Company of New York City, which envisioned building a resort destination within the steep and scenic limestone bluffs, the town’s initial growth ended up being propelled by industry that sprouted up beginning in 1868 as a result of the completion of a railroad and the Townsite Company’s construction of an unmortared, dry-laid stone arch gravity dam. And while the visitors did not come, commerce in Lanesboro entered a new era in 1895 when the dam became a hydroelectric power source.
Fast forward nearly 150 years to the present day and Lanesboro has come full circle. During the summer months, it is not uncommon for me to hear wild squeals of joy and laughter emanating from the window near my desk on the 2nd floor of the Lanesboro Art Gallery as tubers, canoers, and kayakers pass by on the river below. At the end of the day, as I walk from the Gallery building to my vehicle in the Poetry Parking Lot at Bass Pond, it would be entirely ordinary to find myself giving directions and chatting about trout fishing spots with a group of cyclists from India entering town on the former railroad bed — now a paved state bike trail. On my ride home, I’m not surprised when I encounter trucks from Colorado or Nebraska, in town for a cattle auction at the Lanesboro Sales Commission, competing for parking with patrons of the professional Commonweal Theatre Company (whose slogan is “Drama unfolds where the Root River bends”).
Lanesboro is an historic destination for the arts, outdoors, and agriculture. And whether it will continue to be in the future depends partly on the fate of the Lanesboro dam, as well as the health and vitality of the Root River. Flagged by the MN DNR as an “unstable…high risk structure,” action needs to be taken to prevent the catastrophic loss of life, environmental havoc, and economic devastation that would result if the dam were to fail. While sitting at the dam after heavy rainfalls this past September, I couldn’t help thinking about the many setbacks Lanesboro has endured in trying to secure its future. Still, I felt hopeful and optimistic about Lanesboro’s resiliency and ability to amplify community solutions for change.
The process of organizing and planning for Lanesboro’s six weeks as a Water/Ways host site has been an incredibly rewarding and inspiring exercise in community building. A town of 754 people could not host a Smithsonian exhibition without working closely together. And because of the unique cross-sector collaboration between five local non-profits (two arts organizations, a history museum, and two environmental and stewardship groups), the many local programs and events developed in Lanesboro will utilize the arts and the humanities–individual human stories and experiences–to make complex, varying, and, at times, divisive water issues more relevant and accessible by focusing on how we are connected. After all, knowing each other better and discussing what unites us will help secure our common future and keep our water safe, clean, and flowing freely.
Learn more about the Water/Ways traveling exhibit and explore all Lanesboro has to offer January 7 through February 19, 2017 by visiting: lanesboroarts.org/waterways.
Author: Adam Wiltgen
Adam Wiltgen, a native of Southeastern Minnesota, is Program Director at Lanesboro Arts, a multidisciplinary arts organization that has engaged the rural town of Lanesboro, Minnesota—population 754—in diverse programming, including visual art galleries, performing arts, theater, artist residencies, public art initiatives, and educational outreach, working to enable access to the arts while providing innovative solutions to community challenges. He has lived in various river towns for the past twelve years and relishes the rich culture, character, and history that river towns of all sizes possess. He is the project lead for Lanesboro’s cross-sectoral and collaborative experience hosting Water/Ways.